“The majority of the zinnias are natives of Mexico, where they were cultivated at a very early date. The horticultural art of the Aztecs was highly developed, and at the time of the Spanish invasion of 1520, the gardens of Montezuma equalled, if not surpassed, anything that was to be seen in Europe. Besides the zinnia, his flowers included the dahlia, tigridia, sunflower, and morning-glory; and he sent his gardeners to all parts of his realm to collect and introduce new plants and trees….
“When planting a shrub or flower newly imported from a distance, Montezuma’s gardeners were accustomed to prick their ears and sprinkle the leaves of the plant with blood. The new chrysanthemum-flowered zinnias, which have quite lost the neat French-millinery elegance of the older kinds, look as though they had been reared with the aid of some such ceremony.
“The plant was named in honour of J. G. Zinn, Professor of Physics and Botany at Gottingen University, who died in 1758 at the early age of thirty-two…. It is sometimes called Youth and Age; a name for which I can find no explanation.”
It isn’t always, but at this moment, today, it is enough
Enough, to stand in the sunlight of my garden, to peel off the dead heads of the yellow flowers of the huge and glorious bush, to bend down and examine the brownish furry moth, with its tiny pale iridescent salmon-colored dots, as it pauses on the pale, salmon-colored zinnia….
Here we have some in lavender, purple, or pink — followed by a return to some of the red and orange ones that, perhaps, are descendants of those sprinkled with blood by the Aztecs as described in Flowers and Their Histories above. This may or may not be true, of course, but it can be fascinating to consider how generations of these plants made their way from Mexico in the 1500s, then to Europe, then eventually to the United States to land in a garden a mile from my house — transitions through time I had never really thought about until I started photographing flowers like this (obsessively!) and digging into their genesis and history.
“[The] original zinnia, or Zinnia elegans, was introduced into European countries in 1796, and since then has been ‘improved’ into the garden varieties we now know and grow. Many flowers lose by this so-called improvement; the zinnia has gained….
“Some people call it artificial-looking, and so in a way it is. It looks as though it had been cut out of bits of cardboard ingeniously glued together into the semblance of a flower. It is prim and stiff and arranged and precise, almost geometrically precise, so that many people who prefer the more romantic, lavish flowers reject it just on account of its stiffness and regularity….
“[There] are few flowers more brilliant without being crude, and since they are sun-lovers the hot dry spot where we plant them will shower the maximum of light on the formal heads and array of colours. Whether we grow them in a mixture (sold, I regret to say, under the description ‘art shades’) or separate the pink from the orange, the red from the magenta, is a matter of taste. Personally I like them higgledy-piggledy, when they look like those pats of paint squeezed out upon the palette, and I like them all by themselves, not associated with anything else.
“As cut flowers they are invaluable: they never flop, and they last I was going to say for weeks.”
Everything is circles: the spun top of the world, the night, the day, the night again — the corn from seed to stalk to corn to seed….
There is spring in snow, and summer in April, and autumn in the first zinnia, and January in the last….
This is the second of four posts with photos of zinnias that I took over the past few weeks. The first post is Zinnia Elegance (1 of 4).
Here I show some additional zinnia colors. I would like the white ones a lot, I think, but I could only find two zinnias in white so have posted some in pink and yellow-orange shades that were more plentiful.
“[Zinnias] are members of the composite or Asteraceae family of plants — imagine a sunflower — that represents a cluster of hundreds of individual tiny flowers growing upon a single platform called the receptacle. Therefore, and speaking technically, a zinnia or composite is not a flower but instead is a cluster of flowers, as its name suggests. In presenting a single sunflower to a favorite person, for example, it is most correct to exclaim ‘I have brought you a bunch of sunflowers,’ but this most likely won’t catch on.
“The small flowers that compose the ‘flower’ of the Elegant Zinnia and all its relatives represent two basic types: ray flowers and disk flowers. Ray flowers each bear a single colorful petal and often a seed at its base; in single flowers these petals are lined around the rim of the receptacle, producing the ‘sunrays’ as in a sunflower. Disk flowers have no petals and form the central cone of a zinnia. Whereas ray flowers are either sterile or female, disk flowers are both male and female, frequently appearing yellow or orange due to pollen of the male parts (anther/stamens), giving the center of a single composite flower its additional smidgen of color.”
I’ve been anxious all morning,
have come outside to sit by the fall flowers,
shaggy orange and pink and yellow zinnias
grown tall for the occasion
beside the rough-hewn slats of a barn-red barn.
The day is warming after a touch of frost.
The zinnias have made it through
and have a caller
on orange-red, black-veined wings
rimmed with white dots and yellow oblongs.
The wings go from flower head to
head, landing, shutting, opening slowly,
then folding together like supplicant hands
palm to palm for the long deep drawing in,
and rising for delighted swags of dizzy flight
up and down the length of the barn
before lighting on another zinnia….
As I mentioned in my most previous post (see Zinnias and Fritillaries), I’ve made several trips to Oakland Cemetery’s gardens just to spend time photographing flowers from several batches of zinnias that seem especially happy to be here this time of year. The extra attention I gave them got me wondering about the zinnia flower’s structure — especially after looking at flowers like this one, where the zinnia bloom has two little yellow flowers growing around the edges of its central disk…
… about which my first thought was that two additional flowers had seeded themselves (somehow!) onto the zinnia. As is often the case, this puzzling led me to Wikipedia, where zinnias are described as “composite flowers” — and composite flowers are then explained by the botanical term pseudanthium. While “composite flower” and “pseudanthium” are not precisely interchangeable, one can see why one might just be satisfied to use the former term rather than the latter.
Flowers in the aster — or Asteraceae — family are typically composite flowers, and zinnias like the one in the photograph above contain multiple composite parts. In addition to the up-top quotation from A History of Zinnias: Flower for the Ages (I can’t believe I found a book about zinnia history!), you can read a more elaborate description of these intricate structures — along with some diagrams of the different parts of a zinnia flower — at Zinnias: Flower Cycles and Parts. Despite their small size, the additional florets are highly visible in bright yellow or orange, evolving as a strong signal for pollinators (and photographers!) to zoom in for a visit.
I photographed many of these zinnias on a slightly overcast, breeze-free day — my favorite conditions for photographing flowers. Yet as I stood near the zinnias taking pictures, some of them kept swaying to the left or right, as if they were being tapped with a stick. They weren’t of course; but I soon found I had a photo-shoot companion: this bitty creature who, apparently, thought its job was to challenge my focusing skills by leaping from plant to plant and giving the stems a solid shake. I caught him in a nice freeze-frame just after he leapt from his last zinnia, his colors blending with the rock wall as he disappeared into the grass nearby. While I tried to get him to crawl on my hand — THAT didn’t work! — at least I got him to pose for these portraits.
Here’s the first collection of zinnia photos, starting with wide views of some of the red-orange varieties like those I posted previously, followed by closeups of a few other-colored variants with very interesting botanical elements.
“Named after 18th-century German botanist Johann Gottfried Zinn, the genus includes 17 species, all found from the southern United States into South America, with the most diversity in Mexico. Zinnia species are found in open, often dry habitats. Their rapid growth and short lifespan (annual or short-lived non-clonal subshrubs) illustrate a stress-avoiding nature in harsh environments. Zinnia grandiflora is used in herbal medicine by several Native American communities in Mexico.
“The plants were grown by the Aztecs, and introduced into Europe by the Spanish in the late 18th century. A range of colours was known from early on, probably a legacy of Aztec breeding. Ancestral species vary in colour — Zinnia elegans is purple, Z. peruviana red-orange, Z. angustifolia and Z. grandiflora yellow. One of the strong points of the plants as ornamentals is the ability to get vivid purple, pink, yellow, and orange, all from the same seed packet. They were very popular in the 19th century, suffered something of a decline in the late 20th, and now seem to be on the way up once again.”
“This butterfly is bright orange with tadpolelike streaks of black throughout. There are three black-encircled white dots on the edge of the forewing. The underside is brown, orange at the base of the forewing, and both wings have elongated, iridescent silver spots. Males patrol for females, who lay eggs on many parts of the host plant….
“The Gulf Fritillary is often seen in flight over the Gulf of Mexico at some distance from any land. They fly throughout the year in south Florida and south Texas, and January to November in the North…. They inhabit pastures, open fields, second-growth subtropical forests and edges, and also city gardens.”
A couple of years ago, I posted a few photographs of some of the flowers shown below, three of which included some lovely orange butterflies. At the time, I didn’t know that the flowers were zinnias and simply called them “wildflowers” (see Ten Wildflowers and Three Butterflies), nor did I know (but learned from a comment on that post by Butterflies to Dragsters) the word “fritillary.” These days, I’m much more accustomed to trying to identify the correct names of plants and flowers using PlantNet; and I think I’ve accurately identified the butterflies in these new photos as Gulf Fritillaries — which have an affinity for zinnias and are very common in the southern and southeastern United States. The trio of white spots with black borders on each wing give them away.
The first image below shows one of the clusters of zinnias growing at Oakland Cemetery’s gardens, those zinnias having expanded their territory quite a bit since the last time I photographed them. They thrive in a section of the gardens called Greenhouse Valley that’s located near the center of the property, part of which you can see from one of my autumn photographs from 2019. It’s one of the most delightfully appointed sections of the gardens, where you walk down a hilly, winding pathway from the shadows of trees into the sun, and are suddenly immersed in a fascinating group of architectural structures and plant varieties that give it a distinct appearance.
There was lots of light, very little breeze, and temperatures were in the 70s on the day I took these photos — and the fritillaries were plentiful in these weather conditions. At one point, I counted 20 of them flitting (or should I say “fritting”!?!) among the zinnias, each one showing a distinct preference for the larger red-orange zinnias (Z. peruviana), and spending a lot of time on the flowers enjoying their little drinks. They were all unfazed by my presence — some even briefly landed on the end of my lens — which gave me extra opportunities to concentrate on a few of them and get some decent photos. Their preference for the larger zinnias made things a little easier: I typically focused on and set exposure for one of the flower buds, then just waited until a butterfly landed. It was definitely one of those times when nature photography seemed to synchronize nature and photography into a pleasant, relaxing, and even transcendent experience.
I took this series of photos on September 25, then found the quotation from Garden Flora above, where the author states that zinnias may come in purple, pink, yellow, red, and orange; and the Wikipedia article that lists white, chartreuse, yellow, orange, red, purple, and lilac as zinnia colors. ‘Twas only then that I realized that I had taken photos of just the orange/red zinnias, because there is an ongoing construction project at the gardens to repair drainage culverts and repave roads, and many of the zinnias were inaccessible. I went back yesterday, and found that the rest of the zinnia section had reopened, so I’ll have more new photos of these multi-colored beauties (accompanied by some things I’ve learned about zinnias) in several upcoming posts.
“Behavioural studies in the twenty-first century have sought to provide a better understanding of the mechanisms by which bees forage. We know now that they do not ‘see’ shapes or objects but instead detect parameters and recognise places, and by using their 300-degree vision they are able to triangulate on just a few clues in order to find food. The patterns that we see in the flowers around us have evolved to play to such perception, and as our understanding of both plant and pollinator increases we are able to gradually unfold more details of the complex relationships that have formed between them…. “The yellow and black of the Rudbeckia petals is a useful clue to help us understand how bees respond to the colour signals from plants, as it tells us that the contrast between colours plays a significant role. There appears to be yet more evidence for the importance of this colour contrast, in the way that non-floral parts of the plant are seen, or not seen, by bees. As the green parts of a plant must be able to absorb light from the sun in order to photosynthesise, much of the UV light that falls on the leaves and stem is absorbed by pigments such as flavanoids and chlorophyll. As a result, for an animal who sees predominantly in the UV region of the spectrum, green vegetation appears almost black. The effect of this is that the UV-reflecting parts of flowers are heightened by the black background, making them more obvious to certain pollinators.”